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Our missing writers

Why is our nation so poorly represented in the worldwide stage of literatures

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We, in Bangladesh, are in sore need of projecting our intellectual accomplishments before the wider world beyond our frontiers. And that is a job we can do through informing the world about our writers who have over the years produced works -- of literature, history, biography -- in English.

Let us face facts: Bangladesh remains poorly represented or not at all when it comes to coming level with other nations in terms of the works produced, in the English language, by its people. The fault is not that we in our country do not write in English. It is in the sad reality of knowing that the works of our intellectually-endowed citizens are not properly laid out overseas.

In these past couple of weeks or so, quite a few have been the works which have excited our collective imagination. Professor Shawkat Hussain, formerly of the Department of English at Dhaka University, has now given us a translation of Rabindranath Tagore. Kabuliwala and Other Stories, for that is the work, has been drawing positive responses from readers in the country. In similar fashion, The Memsaheb’s Foot, his translation of the Bangla work of his colleague Kashinath Roy, who passed away a year ago, is a significant contribution to English language writing in Bangladesh.

Significance within the country apart, the depressing bit about our failure to inform readers abroad of our writers stems from the reluctance of our cultural mandarins, who people the corridors of such putatively important precincts as the ministry of cultural affairs, to have these works make their way to book fairs abroad.

Be it the Frankfurt book fair or the Kolkata book fair or the Delhi book fair or any other such fair, there is absolutely little way for foreign connoisseurs of culture to know that a tribe of writers ready and willing to offer their works to them reigns in Bangladesh. Visitors who have regularly made their way to various book fairs outside Bangladesh have come away with complaints that the Bangladesh pavilions at these fairs have hardly ever displayed works that could give foreigners a feel of the cultural dimensions of the country.

In recent days, we have had the enormous pleasure of knowing that a new work, Diplomacy in Obscurity: A Memoir, by Hemayet Uddin, an eminent diplomat who has retired from public service, is out. Published by University Press Limited, the work adds new substance to the tales of our diplomacy penned over the years by such predecessors of Hemayet Uddin as K M Shehabuddin (There and Back Again) and Fakhruddin Ahmed (Critical Times). There is too S.A. Karim’s acclaimed Sheikh Mujib: Triumph and Tragedy. Regrettably these rich works, which not only are educational for us here in Bangladesh but also an illustration of the intellectual landscape that is the Bengali state, have not been projected abroad in the way works by writers in other countries have been. 

Book fairs abroad do not have these works. Neither have the many cultural wings at our embassies ever shouldered the responsibility of organizing discussions to acquaint foreign readers of the attainments that continue to be made back home. Professor Fakrul Alam’s admirable translations of Bangabandhu’s Oshomapto Atyojiboni and Karagarer Rojnamcha have impressed foreign enthusiasts of Bangladesh’s history. More could be done through our scholars coming forth with works, in English, on Tajuddin Ahmad and the entirety of the history of the Mujibnagar government and the War of Liberation. Kamal Hossain’s Bangladesh: Quest for Freedom And Justice and Rehman Sobhan's Untranquil Recollections: Nation Building in Post-Liberation Bangladesh are substantive accounts of a decisive phase in the nation’s history that call for popularizing and projection through institutional, essentially official, means. The same holds true of Nurul Islam’s Making Of A Nation.

Works such as Modernism and Beyond: Western Influences on Bangladeshi Poetry by the late academic and poet Khondokar Ashraf Hossain are a profound inquiry into the genre. Add to that Razia Khan: Omnibus Edition (published courtesy of the late academic’s family) and what you have is a composite image of Bangladesh’s literary richness. And that is not all.

Khan’s literary works of the 1960s and 1970s are part of a rich tapestry of intellectual thought in Bangladesh. They deserve a good place on bookshelves abroad. Tree Without Roots, an excellent translation of Syed Waliullah’s work, saw its 2005 edition thanks to the diligence Professor Niaz Zaman brought into the job at writers.ink. Kazi Anis Ahmed’s Good Night, Mr Kissinger is fascinating reading. Have any of these works made their way into foreign scholars’ domains?

Khan Sarwar Murshid’s works are evocative of our culture. Kaiser Haq’s poetry has sublimity calling for a wider readership abroad. And, yes, Nymphea Publication’s recent gift to readers, When the Mango Tree Blossomed, further accentuates literary writing, in English, in Bangladesh. All of these works ought to be at book fairs abroad, courtesy of the nation’s culture ministry. Rummana Chowdhury in Canada has been engaged in literary writing for the past many years and so has Tulip Chowdhury in the United States. Nashid Kamal has been into translations of Nazrul. One wonders why their works are not made available in Bangladesh stalls at book fairs abroad.

A couple of incisive publications by our scholars have in recent times made their way into the public domain, which is as much as arguing that they should be collected by the ministry of culture and our embassies, the better to project them before people keen on knowing of Bangladesh’s cultural heritage abroad. 

Seema Ahmad’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters: A Daughter’s Memoir Of The Man Behind North South University(Academic Press and Publishers Library) is a necessary reminder, for those of us inclined to forget, of the contributions of Muslehuddin Ahmad to diplomacy and, more importantly, to the emergence of the first private university in the country. 

Additionally, Elora Shehabuddin’s coruscating Sisters In The Mirror: A History Of Muslim Women and the Global Politics of Feminism (University of California Press) is testimony to the cerebralnarrative a younger generation of Bengali writers both at home and abroad happen to be offering readers everywhere. Sonia Zaman Khan’s The Politics and Law of Democratic Transition: Caretaker Government in Bangladesh (Routledge) is an in-depth analysis of a system that has played an undeniably enormous role in the nation’s politics. These are works which at the governmental level call for emphasis abroad.

Some years ago, to observe the 400th anniversary of Dhaka, the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh produced a good number of works, in English, on diverse aspects of the rise and growth of the city. Why have they not been patronized by the state at fairs, exhibitions and deliberations abroad?

History is a study of politics outlining the cultural parameters of nations. It is a mapping of intellectual landscapes which constantly and consistently enrich the political roots of countries. Fifty years into our freedom, the world is in need of studies of the intellectual trajectory we have covered thus far.

When we walk over to our stalls at global book fairs, we expect a rich collection of works testifying to the diversity of our cultural and political traditions. It is embarrassing when people walk by our stalls to other stalls, because our stalls have little on offer. Could the ministry of culture be reactivated, or better yet, reinvented at home?

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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